The Man Who Inspired 'Nightcrawler' (and Other Movies)

What connects 'Nightcrawler,' 'Dr. Strangelove,' and 'The Naked City'? One 1930s crime scene photographer.

Jake Gyllenhaal Nightcrawler
Open Road Films

“If it bleeds, it leads.” That’s the newsroom mantra introducing Nightcrawler protagonist Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) to the cutthroat world of “stringing,” in which freelance videographers prowl LA’s streets in search of grisly footage to sell to news stations.

The phrase is a neat summation of the lurid priorities of news directors like Nina (Rene Russo), but by proxy, it’s also an indictment of TV viewers who lap up such macabre scoops, hiking the ratings of stations like Nina’s KWLA-6 and tacitly encouraging the ethical transgressions of people like Lou in the process. Although we never actually see the viewers who eat up KWLA-6’s sensationalized broadcasts, the invisible thousands who make up the station’s audience are always lurking outside of Nightcrawler’s frame, their morbid interests implied in every scene.

In marrying scathing media commentary with sociopathic character study, Nightcrawler sheds light on the symbiotic relationship between the news, stringers like Lou, and our own voyeuristic impulses. The film‘s writer-director, Dan Gilroy, was inspired to bring these elements to a head by someone whose work he placed, like Nightcrawler, at the “intersection of art and crime and commerce”: the pioneering tabloid photographer Weegee.

An unlikely celebrity, Weegee (born Usher Fellig) almost single-handedly launched stringing’s profile with his sensational front-page photos of grisly crime scenes, fires, and car accidents in New York City in the 1930s and 1940s. It’s not hard to understand why Gilroy was so inspired by his work, or why Weegee’s images endure while the news stories that originally accompanied them have largely faded into history. His freelance photos for New York tabloids went beyond simple reportage. By blending an arresting film noir aesthetic with gritty documentary realism, he could cast even the city’s more run-of-the-mill incidents as sensational spectacle.

There’s electricity in Weegee’s work. His use of a ginormous flash made it seem like his images were lit by lightning, explosive split-second bolts that exposed things you weren’t supposed to see. He usually shot at night and favored high contrast, a combination that gives his unsparing photos the gut-punch impact and suggestiveness of Renaissance chiaroscuro. In photos of curb-side crime scenes like “On the Spot,” for example, the blinding whites of body sheets are set hard against the sordid blackness of bloodstains and creeping shadows. He had an eye for unearthing the theatrical in the everyday — many of his photos could easily serve as album covers — just as he had a knack for identifying the ironic in the tragic (“Joy of Living”, for example). Full of suggestion and drama, his best photos have a surreally cinematic quality; they look almost like entire movies condensed into a single frame.

Weegee rarely spared tabloid readers the graphic results of a murder or a crash, and it wasn’t uncommon to see a bloodied face or a battered body in one of his photos. Often, though, he turned his Speed Graphic camera and uncompromising flash the other way, capturing with equal frankness the hungry stares of onlookers. Photos like “Balcony Seats at a Murder,” “Mannequin Murder,” and “Their First Murder” aren’t so much snapshots of crime scenes as they are portraits of voyeurism, the age-old human obsession with seeing.

Nightcrawler picks up that baton. Its unseen TV audiences are the modern equivalent of Weegee’s rubberneckers, just as Lou is an updated, corrupted version of the photographer himself. Like his predecessor, Lou is a bootstrapper, energized by ambition and pressing economic need into making a living out of exposing the dark underbelly of his city. Gilroy’s creation is almost constantly accompanied by the blare of his police scanner; Weegee, too, spent much of his time listening out for promising calls on his police radio, and he also kept a bell, synced with the Fire Department’s alarm system, in the room he rented near police headquarters.

Partway through Nightcrawler, Lou becomes so attuned to the rhythm of crime that he starts to beat the emergency services to crime scenes, Gilroy drawing here on Weegee’s seemingly sixth-sense ability to get to incidents before anyone else (that is said to be how he earned his moniker, a phonetic derivative of “ouija”). The two men appear to share even the most specific of habits: in one scene, Lou abruptly gets out of his car to upload fresh footage onto the laptop he keeps in the trunk of his Dodge Challenger, giving a modern update to the myth that Weegee kept a makeshift darkroom in the back of his Chevrolet (this legend was perpetuated by The Public Eye, Howard Franklin’s 1992 thriller loosely based on Weegee).

It would be doing Weegee a disservice to neglect their differences, though. For one, while eccentric, by no accounts was Weegee a sociopath like Nightcrawler’s antihero. Lou’s work also lacks the artistic sensibility that makes his forerunner’s so enduring — Weegee’s photo-book Naked City has never been out of print since it was published in 1945 — and he always opts to move in for the sensational shot rather than pull out for the poetic, as Weegee did. And while Weegee did stretch the truth in some of his photos, rearranging a hat here and there or staging non-crime scene shots like “The Critic” and “Heat Spell,” he is never reported to have gone to the unscrupulous lengths Lou does to get his money shot.

Unlike Weegee’s, Lou’s work consciously hews to one very specific narrative: “urban crime creeping into the suburbs,” as Nina puts it. Where Weegee might surreptitiously inject some compassion into his tabloid assignments — shooting sensitive images of the city’s marginalized, like its LGBTQ residents, for example — Lou’s seedy shots of bullet-ridden white bodies in affluent neighborhoods are single-minded about what they suggest. In short, while Weegee’s images could upend assumptions about his subjects and, in doing so, tell a truth about the city he worked in, Lou’s never can because they exist purely to serve the racist agenda of broadcasts like those of KWLA-6.

Dr Strangelove

Although most famous for the work he produced in his home city, Weegee’s influence extended out west to Lou’s, too. Gilroy first came to know of Weegee through his smash-hit photo-book Naked City, the title of which was optioned by producer Mark Hellinger for Jules Dassin’s 1948 classic film The Naked City. Based on a short story written by screenwriter Malvin Wald, Dassin’s steadily-paced procedural doesn’t share either the sensationalist bent of Weegee’s tabloid work or his struck-by-lightening visual style.

There is a less obvious parallel between the two, however. In portraying the police investigation of a model’s murder, The Naked City features several shots of eager readers peering at tabloid front pages about the killing, as well as crowds of intrigued bystanders lingering outside crime scenes. As biographer Christopher Bonanos points out, Weegee himself even makes an appearance in the first of these shots (he is most likely the cigar-smoking photographer who crosses paths with the police in this scene). Just as do both Weegee’s work and Nightcrawler, The Naked City interrogates our base voyeuristic impulse and lays bare its sustaining effect on tabloid journalism.

Weegee’s cameo in The Naked City came as a result of Hellinger hiring him to shoot production stills for the film. He performed a similar function on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, although again, he left a mark on the film that went beyond that which he was hired for. Kubrick, who had been a press photographer in a previous life (he actually covered The Naked City‘s production for Look magazine), was an admirer of Weegee’s and brought him onto the set as a visual consultant and stills photographer. Weegee shot Kubrick and the cast at work in his characteristic noir style and even captured rare visual evidence of the movie’s canned ending: the infamous pie fight scene.

A 1964 appearance by Peter Sellers on The Steve Allen Show reveals Weegee’s influence on the film in another way, this time unwitting. Sellers describes feeling “stuck” when it came to devising the speaking style for the German Doctor, the third character he plays in the film (after the English Captain and the American President). As he tells it, he found his answer in Weegee, whose distinctive voice Sellers had heard much of on set while filming his other parts. Weegee had a peculiarly strangled-sounding, Kermit-esque speaking style (you can hear him talk to Sellers here), which Sellers combined with a German accent to produce the Doctor’s idiosyncratic voice, embedding a part of Weegee right into the heart of the film.

Unlike The Naked City, Weegee never parlayed his presence on Dr. Strangelove’s set into a cameo. His inadvertent impact on Sellers, however, extended his influence far beyond that of a split-second appearance and earned him a noteworthy place in Kubrick’s satire forever. Though he may not have been around to play that kind of role in Nightcrawler‘s production, the influence he exerted over Gilroy’s film reaches even deeper, proving that, over half a century later, the power and relevancy of Weegee and his work are still booming.

Freelance writer based in the UK. According to Lil B, I'm "a true positive spirit - Lil B"